When ABC staff member Jill Meagher was brutally raped and murdered in Brunswick in 2012, my four female housemates and I were asleep in our beds less than two kilometres away. Not long after the first ‘MISSING’ posters started appearing on the street, news broke that her body had been found a short distance up the highway leading out of Melbourne. Having worked at the ABC prior to moving to Melbourne and living a stone’s throw away from where she had been attacked, I found myself gripped by her tragic story.
A week before Jill’s death, we’d walked home from the tram stop without a thought for our own safety. But after her body was found, none of us wanted to leave the house, even to go to the milk bar next door, without someone coming with us. Statistically, our chances of being attacked on the street had not changed, but psychologically, our awareness of that risk had grown.
Last August, in broad daylight on a Sunday lunchtime, there was a string of sexual assaults not far from where my husband and I now live. In the space of an hour, a man had waited near a railway underpass before grabbing three women and exposing himself or assaulting them.
Over the Easter long weekend just gone, the now well-known murder of school teacher Stephanie Scott took place in the NSW town of Leeton. Heading into the classroom to get things ready before going away to be married and on her honeymoon it’s alleged she was attacked and murdered by the school cleaner.
Four days ago, a woman was attacked in Prahran, in Melbourne’s south while walking her dog at dusk. A man jumped out from an apartment building’s rubbish bin storage area, pinned her against the bins and punched her in the face. A trained kick boxer, the woman fought back and kicked him in the groin and kidneys before running off. This week the victim shared a video of herself speaking about the importance of women learning self defence on Facebook. It’s gone viral.
Unfortunately for women, fear of danger is not just an occasional feeling which surfaces a couple of times a year. The majority of women experience an underlying vulnerability that is both necessary and tragic. As we walk home at night we must be on high alert: watching, listening, grasping our phone to make a call, sometimes holding our keys between our fingers to use as a weapon if necessary. And that’s not to mention the women for whom home is no longer a safe place. According to crime stats, two Australian women are killed every week, many by the people they know best – husbands, partners, fathers.
Fear, it seems, is logical. But is it Christian? What should the script in the Christian woman’s head be when walking home from the train station?
Fear is a natural, God-given thing. A biological response to an external threat, it’s nature’s way of preparing you to deal with danger.
And in a fallen world, fear is necessary. Not all is right in the world and there is a certain rightness to the fear we feel for our personal and communal safety. Living in a broken world, it would be foolhardy to live without fear, to pretend there were no dangers to encounter. Sometimes, though, that’s not what society, and particularly women, want to hear.
Last month, a 17-year-old school girl was randomly attacked and killed in broad daylight in a park in Melbourne’s north-east. During the investigations, a senior homicide detective urged women to be a “little bit more careful” walking in parks alone. His comments were not taken well. A protest was soon organised in the park where she was killed, with one of those attending telling the ABC, “We shouldn’t be afraid to walk in our own neighbourhood. We shouldn’t be afraid to let our children walk alone … whether we have earphones on or not we shouldn’t be afraid to experience life in itself.”
I wish I could nod in agreement. And I can, in part. I can agree with the use of the qualifier “should”. But sadly, because something should be different, doesn’t mean it is.
The Christian is in a unique position to understand this. We know there are lots of “shoulds” in the world, including safety for women against violence and sexual assault. But we also know that the world is fallen. The “shoulds” are there because we long for things to be put right again. And so there is a sense in which the Christian can’t be naive about the dangers of the world.
The Christian must have a realistic perspective on the risks and dangers of being alive. They include being victim to bad driving, falling ill, marrying a violent person, being in a plane when it crashes, being terrorised, robbed, humiliated, treated unfairly, and so many other things. The Christian can’t bury their head in the sand when it comes to sin in the world. It is there and it is dangerous.
And yet, we know that this life is not all there is. Jesus, speaking to the disciples before sending them out in Matthew 10 tells them there is more to worry about than physical harm.
“… do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Jesus has a great way of reassuring the disciples doesn’t he? Essentially, he says, “Guys, you might be feeling scared, and well, quite frankly you should be even more afraid than you already are because the Creator of the universe holds your destiny in his hands”. But he finishes it off with a jarringly beautiful image of the Father counting all the hairs on their heads. This same Creator God who is so powerful, is also the one who loves and cares for them, and for us.
Jesus is saying, “yes, the world is frightening”. But that’s not the end of the story. God is above the physical dangers of this world. Perhaps a good question to ask is whether we as women have those twin realities in balance, or are we letting fear of the world take over? Equally strong, if not more strong than the fear signals our body sends us is the knowledge that God holds our lives in his hands.
So what then should the script that plays in our heads as we go about our business say? How do we both be aware of those dangers without becoming paralysed by fear, yet not denying those dangers as some are tempted to do?
Here, I think, is where the Psalms can really help orient our thoughts to the real and present danger, as well as to the protection God provides. What could be more helpful than meditating on Psalm 23:4-5 “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows.”
Yes, there are shadowy valleys where evil lurks and seeks to harm us. But while we may be in a valley where fear seems to be the only option, we know that there is one more powerful than any evil we may confront, and he makes our cup overflow. What a calming influence on a racing mind. Balm for the fearful soul.
NB: I don’t want to in anyway underestimate the reality of anxiety disorders. They are real, and they are treatable. This article is not suggesting if you have an anxiety disorder that you just need to read the Bible and snap out of it. If you experience anxiety to a heightened degree you should see a health professional.
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